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Portal plan targets humanities teachers: Technology offers access to data, lesson-planning

February 7, 2005

The Indiana Humanities Council wants to open a new doorway for teachers around the state.

IHC has begun testing a trial version of an education-portal program called Smart-Desktop at six central Indiana schools, including three from IPS.

The goal of the program is to help teachers teach traditional humanities subjects such as history, social science and literature more efficiently and effectively, said John Keller, teacher-designer and coordinator of K-12 development for the Smart-Desktop initiative.

Starting Feb. 1, more than 30 teachers from Indianapolis and other central Indiana schools began using a trial version of the SmartDesktop portal to access a growing database of information to support their classroom lessons. In March, additional features will come on line that will help teachers create daily lesson plans and keep track of their students' progress.

The teachers will report back to IHC and Indianapolis-based development consultant MindGent LLC on any problems they might find and make suggestions on how to tweak the system.

Kurt Crowley, a solution architect for MindGent, said IHC wants to complete the trial and make any resulting improvements by Aug. 1.

If things go according to plan, the initial version of SmartDesktop will be available to Indiana teachers for the 2005-2006 school year, he said.

The project is being funded by a $4 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. The National Endowment for the Arts agreed last month to provide an additional $500,000 in funding, Keller said.

The program is receiving collaborative support from the Indiana Department of Education and Purdue, Ball State and Indiana universities.

IHC is initially offering SmartDesktop for free, but at some point will have to charge for its use. Keller said the goal is to keep it as inexpensive as possible.

Keller said IHC is concerned that a growing emphasis on improving student performance in reading and math is cutting into the time teachers can spend on traditional humanities subjects.

It's important that students learn basic skills, Keller said, but they also need the exposure to literature, history and the other humanities.

"Without the humanities, we end up with a shallow understanding of being human," he said.

IHC decided one way to not shortchange humanities was to help teachers make the most of the time they do have. After three years of development, IHC thinks SmartDesktop can help.

The program takes a three-part approach. The first part, which came online this month, is called the Resource Connection, or ResCon.

ResCon provides a searchable database of materials from major state and national museums, cultural organizations, government offices and other sources. About 25 major state institutions and 10 national organizations act as resource partners.

Keller said another 1,331 organizations also offer links to ResCon. The goal is to have as many as 100,000 searchable sites available within five years.

ResCon uses a search engine that allows teachers to access information several ways. Data can be accessed based on grade level, time period, geographical area and content provider, as well as by topic. The content is designed to be as compatible with Indiana academic standards as possible, Keller noted.

The two other elements to SmartDesktop, which come online next month, are an electronic plan book and an assessment module.

The plan book is a computer version of the teacher's venerable paper and pencil plan book that's been a classroom fixture for generations.

One of the advantages of an electronic plan book is teachers can insert links to Web sites into the daily plan, where they can be accessed immediately. Teachers also can insert their own file links to items such as quizzes and handouts.

The assessment module is keyed to the state's academic standards, so teachers can keep track of the important points that need to be covered. Teachers can use this feature to create rubrics for assessing student performance and then add their indi vidual impressions.

Crowley said MindGent, which was hired as technology partner in November, didn't have much trouble developing a portal that could do all these things, even though the schedule was pretty tight. It was important, though, that SmartDesktop be relatively inexpensive. MindGent did this by using open-source software and an off-the-shelf search engine, he noted.

The Indiana Historical Bureau has been a resource partner for the program since 2003. Bureau members liked the idea of making its database so widely available, according to Carole Allen, the organization's history education specialist.

"Since we're a state agency, the more people who look at it, the better we feel about it," she said.

The Indiana Historical Society expects to link with smartDesktop in the next two or three months, said Elaine Rosa, the society's director of education. Society members are developing lesson plans suitable for the portal, but Rosa said the society will keep revising and expanding its content as time passes.

Les Durbin, principal of Thomas Gregg School 15, which is taking part in the trial run, said eight teachers at his school are excited about their chance to participate in the trials and make suggestions that will help determine SmartDesktop's final form.
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